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Ruthie Foster: Texas Gospel With A Worldly Touch

Feb 3, 2012
Originally published on February 4, 2012 12:05 pm

Ruthie Foster is from a small town in central Texas — but there's nothing small about the way she sings on her new album, Let It Burn. Zigzagging between blues, soul, gospel and rock, the album features solid originals and surprising covers, along with several stirring collaborations with The Blind Boys of Alabama.

Foster herself has followed a winding path in her career, including a tour of duty with the U.S. Navy Band and a stint in New York City, where she briefly had a contract with Atlantic Records.

"New York was a great experience. I try to say yes to opportunity, and it was an opportunity to be a songwriter," she says. "I learned a lot about different ways to write a song, how to keep an audience, how to keep people from walking out. I can say I walked away a better musician."

Ultimately, Foster left New York and returned to Texas, this time settling in the musical mecca of Austin.

I decided I needed to go back to my home base and write about the things that I know," she says. "That's when my music started to really change."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Ruthie Foster is from a small town in central Texas, but there is nothing small about the way she sings on her new CD, "Let it Burn."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

RUTHIE FOSTER: (Singing) In the beginning, you really loved me, I was too blind, I couldn't see...

GREENE: Ruthie Foster is a blues, soul, gospel, rock - you can probably add more genres to that - kind of singer. She put in a tour of duty with the U.S. Navy Band, she had a stint in New York City and eventually found her way back home to Texas, this time to the musical mecca of Austin. Her new album features some solid, original and some surprising covers, along with a few stirring collaborations with that iconic gospel ensemble, The Blind Boys of Alabama.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD MOVES ON THE WATER")

FOSTER: (Singing) God moves on the water, April, the 14th day. God moves on the water, everybody had to run and pray. The Titanic left Southampton...

GREENE: And Ruthie Foster joins us now from our studios at NPR West. Ruthie, welcome, and thanks for being here.

FOSTER: Hello, hello. It is a pleasure, a joy.

GREENE: Well, we agree. So, you got started in a rural church choir in Texas. Take us back there.

FOSTER: Yeah. I grew up in central part of Texas. It's this little place, little area called Till's Prairie. Of course, we say Till's Prayer(ph) from where I'm from. And a lot of my family pretty much made up the church - and the church choir for that matter.

GREENE: Your family out there in the audience.

FOSTER: Yeah. Yeah, I had no choice but to either go into singer or preach. You know, it was just one of those things.

GREENE: I wonder if this new album - I mean, you're performing with the Blind Boys of Alabama - are you harkening back, I mean, to that church choir and those times?

FOSTER: Oh, completely. You know, and they do that. And whenever the Blind Boys enter the room, I found out the atmosphere just changes. It gets loud, you know.

GREENE: I can imagine.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FOSTER: And I found out by singing beside them you don't just sing, you sang. And that's what we did back in the church. You know, when it was time to sing, that was your time to testify. It was about opening up and showing people what you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LORD REMEMBER ME")

FOSTER: (Singing) Oh, Lord, remember me, remember me. Oh, Lord, remember me, remember me. When this chain get broken, set my body free. Oh, Lord, remember me. Oh, remember me. Day long, I call your name, I call your name...

GREENE: Well, and I wonder with such a tight group, a tight ensemble like the Blind Boys, I mean, they've worked together for so long, how do you find your place? How do you find your voice when you're singing with them?

FOSTER: Well, you know, that's a good question. I learned a lot about phrasing back when I was learning how to sing with a big band and singing with the Blind Boys of Alabama is kind of like singing with a big band. You try to find the holes, you know.

GREENE: And fit in them.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FOSTER: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LORD REMEMBER ME")

FOSTER: (Singing) Oh, Lord, remember me.

GREENE: You know, I mentioned in the intro, one of the other things you've done in this new album is you've gone after some pretty surprising covers. And here's one - it's Johnny Cash's classic "Ring of Fire."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RING OF FIRE")

FOSTER: (Singing) Love is a burning thing, and it makes a fiery ring, bound by wild desire, I fell into a ring of fire. I fell into a burning ring of fire. I went down, down, oh, and the flames went higher.

GREENE: I mean, it took me a while to even realize that that's the song I was listening to. That's not exactly the Johnny Cash version.

FOSTER: No, not exactly. Yeah. What I tried to do with this arrangement was capture the spirit of the relationship between Johnny Cash and June Carter. You know, that was - we all know - was one of the great American country love stories. And that's what I'm trying to capture with this arrangement.

GREENE: Isn't it gutsy to take on a song that people have heard and know so well and really in many ways have always belonged to other musicians?

FOSTER: Yeah, I guess it would be called gutsy. And it gives you - taking a song to another place actually kind of opens it up to almost another genre and in turn more people know about the tune. So, the song itself becomes timeless that way.

GREENE: Well, I wanted to ask you about some time you spent in New York. Your career seemed to be taking off, there was a record deal, but things went sour it seems like. What happened?

FOSTER: Well, New York is a great experience. And I'm one of these people, I like to - I try to say yes to opportunity. And it was an opportunity to be a songwriter and I learned a lot from the process. I did my time, I wrote the songs I was supposed to write and, you know, and I knew when it was time to go. And I learned a lot about how to write a song and different ways to write a song, how to keep an audience, how to keep it from walking out once they're coming in. You know, I can say I walked away from that really a better musician. And it wasn't until I decided I needed to go back to my home base and write about the things that I know. And that's when my music to really change. It took a really nice turn.

GREENE: And you went home to Texas, and, as I understand, it your mom fell very ill and you took some time off. It sounds like that was a really tough time.

FOSTER: It was. And it gave me an opportunity to come back to who I am - being my mother's daughter, being a sister, being an aunt - and it brought me back to the things that mattered and gave me something to write about.

GREENE: And tell me about your mom. What was she like?

FOSTER: My mother was beautiful. And, you know, sometimes I feel that she's so with me in that studio.

GREENE: And why is that so much your mom?

FOSTER: It's part of what I remember about her spirit and how much she loved music. And I can see her standing in front of the screen door with the stereo going on and, you know, just kind of swaying to the music. It's just who she is, you know, and the things that she like.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I HAD A HAMMER")

GREENE: OK. There's one more cover that I have to ask you about, because I was really surprised to see it on the CD cover. It has to be the sultriest version I've ever heard of "If I Had a Hammer."

FOSTER: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I HAD A HAMMER")

FOSTER: (Singing) If I had a hammer, I'd hammer in the morning, I'd hammer in the evening, all over this land. I'd hammer out danger, I'd hammer out a warning, I'd hammer out a love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land...

I think this is the first take so I had no idea this was actually going to end up on the CD. So, I just kind of went with what I was hearing from the guys. And I think it worked out pretty cool. It goes somewhere else, like a lot of the tunes on this CD. And I think it will open up a few listeners to these timeless songs. This is a timeless tune.

GREENE: Ruthie Foster, it has been so nice to talk to you.

FOSTER: Thank you.

GREENE: Ruthie Foster's new CD is called "Let It Burn." She spoke to us from NPR West and she's getting ready to hit the road for her tour.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I HAD A HAMMER")

FOSTER: (Singing) If I had a song, I'd sing it in the morning...

GREENE: And you can hear more songs from the album "Let It Burn" at NPRMusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is back next week. I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.